When Aubrey Parker’s best friend Grace dies, Aubrey returns to her home town to attend the funeral. After breaking into Grace’s apartment and spending the night there, Aubrey awakes to find that she is seemingly alone in the world, with strange creatures roaming outside and odd things beginning to happen. She finds a message from Grace: an unsent letter in the form of a cassette tape, that leads her on a quest to solve the mystery of what is happening around her.
A. T. White’s ‘cosmic horror’ Starfish is a stunning piece of work, especially in light of it being White’s debut feature film, and one that he wrote, directed, and scored. Starfish is an intense, multi-layered, and spellbinding study of grief and regret, under the guise of genre fiction (although actually it’s hard to pin down to just one genre: fantasy? sci-fi? horror? – yes, all of these, but so much more too).
Apocalyptic ‘last person on earth’ stories – such as The Quiet Earth and I Think We’re Alone Now – are often a mixed-bag of restrictions and opportunities for film-makers. Is your protagonist really the last person on earth, and if so, how do you create something scripturally and visually strong enough to sustain interest for 90-plus minutes with just one person on screen? If not, how do you present a story nuanced enough that it doesn’t feel like a cheat? On the other hand, having only one character to work with can allow you to focus more sharply on details; minutiae that might otherwise be overlooked. Will you explore the hows and whys of their plight, or examine what now motivates them in their new situation?
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Starfish deals well with both the restrictions and opportunities. It is slow-paced without ever being dull. It allows the viewer time to look at what is on screen; it wants us to observe, connect, make sense of what we’re seeing. And what we’re seeing most of the time is Aubrey, as she tries to make sense of her situation. It’s not dialogue heavy, wisely choosing to show not tell, but it does find ways for Aubrey to have conversations with someone other than herself without it ever feeling like a cheat. A film like this lives or dies on its casting, and Virginia Gardner as Aubrey gives an incredibly nuanced performance, of understated grief and confusion, with some moments so raw and real that they are painful to watch. She also has a lighter touch when required, and Starfish benefits hugely from just how watchable she is.
Starfish is a visually rich movie, with almost every shot perfectly framed to create a series of beautiful images. This is partly down to A. T. White’s direction, but credit must also be given to the production designer and visual effects crew. Grace’s apartment features heavily in the film, and the colour palette and attention to detail speak volumes about who she was. The creatures, when we see them, are in keeping with the tone of the piece, never jarring or played for cheap reaction. Which is not to say that Starfish doesn’t contain any surprises, in terms of its visuals or storytelling: indeed, it goes to some strange places that are best discovered afresh and unspoilt.
Starfish – the entire film – is a puzzle to be solved. It is full of secrets, and its meaning (or range of meanings) is open to interpretation. It is a many limbed creature: a fantasy horror that is also a musing on grief and an exploration of the power of music to transport and transform. It bears watching more than once in order to answer the many – perhaps definitively unanswerable – questions that arise. But if what actually happens in Starfish is debatable, what is clear is its ability to get under the skin, to arouse and provoke. It is mythic in its simplicity and complexity; a dark fairytale that leaves one both bewildered and hungry for more.
Starfish is available now on VOD, from various providers.